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23. Twentieth-Century American Crime and Detective Fiction

Charles J. Rzepka

Subject Literature » American Literature

Period 1000 - 1999 » 1900-1999

Key-Topics crime fiction, novel and novella

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631206873.2009.00026.x


In the genre of crime fiction, twentieth-century America is famous the world over for its “hard-boiled” private eyes — tough sleuths like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer. The roots of hard-boiled detective and crime fiction, however, clutch firmly at the soil of the nineteenth-century. From the antebellum frontier tales of James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) and the Western adventure and action stories of the late nineteenth-century dime novel evolved the figure of the lone enforcer. Emotionally undemonstrative, energetic, relentless, and averse to female companionship, this action hero typically pursued a higher form of justice outside the restraints of the legal establishment, straddling the line between wilderness and settlement, savagery and civilization. From the British detective tradition hard-boiled writers borrowed, and extensively modified, the so-called “puzzle element,” by which the reader was implicitly invited to compete with the fictional detective as he or she (usually he) searched for a solution to the crime (or crimes) and an answer to the question, “Whodunit?” As epitomized by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) in the person of his eccentric “calculating machine,” Sherlock Holmes, the hero of this “classical” brand of puzzle-oriented detection often worked, like his action hero counterpart, at or just beyond the limits of the law. Doyle's twentieth-century ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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